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At Some Schools, Budget Cuts Hitting Sports

Instead of gearing up to run cross country for Grove City High School in Ohio, Andy Bennett is training for a marathon.

It will give the 16-year-old some consolation because sports programs and clubs at his school have been shut down. An hour after the last bell each afternoon, it's lights out at the school.

Bennett and his classmates won't have homecoming, prom or a student government - activities that, like sports, are fixtures in American high schools but no longer exist at Grove City because of a financial crisis.

That's the plight of all students who attend South-Western City Schools, which serves part of Columbus and nearby towns and is Ohio's sixth-largest school district. The district has been in dire financial straits for years and is being squeezed further by the economic downturn. By canceling activities, the district cut $2.5 million in expenses, district spokeswoman Sandy Nekoloff says.

"I thought it was the worst thing in the world," Bennett says of the school board's decision to cancel activities after a proposed property tax hike was rejected by voters in August, the third time it failed.

In this district, no one has been spared, not even Grove City High's marching band. "There's no football games. There's nowhere for the marching band to march," Nekoloff says.

High schools across the USA are reporting that the recession has led to similar financial difficulties for extracurricular programs, forcing cost-cutting that is particularly painful now, as fall sports seasons open. From Hawaii to Rhode Island, school systems are trimming compensation for coaches, eliminating transportation, adding or increasing athletic fees for students, holding fundraising drives, cutting back on night games to save electricity costs and dropping some sports and related events altogether.

In Nevada, this "is going to be the worst year financially for school districts in history - and 2010-11 is going to be worse," says Eddie Bonine, executive director of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association. "We may be told to do more next year."

In Michigan, Jamie Gent, athletics director at Haslett High near Lansing, says, "There's no money, period. We're coming to a stage in the next three years that if things don't get better, (it could damage) sports altogether. Who do you pick? What stays? What sport doesn't stay?"

Bennett says he was close to transferring to a school outside his district so he could earn his third varsity letter in cross country. His parents were willing to pay more than $3,000 for him to attend an out-of-district public school or private school, he says.

He knows of other families who are paying steep tuition so their teens can play sports.

Such a move from Grove City would have been difficult academically and socially, Bennett says. He is a top student taking Advanced Placement courses and didn't want to hurt his chances of getting into his dream college, the Air Force Academy. "I've been in the Grove City public system forever," he says. "Switching to another school with no friends was not very appealing."

Some athletes may miss out

The mood at school is grim, others say. "We're going to have all these idle hands," says Drew Eschbach, who was the cross country coach.

Top-tier athletes will be OK, Eschbach says, because they will transfer to schools with better-funded programs or form their own clubs. He says he worries about average athletes who will miss out on the collegiality and sense of belonging that a team or club can provide.

Some in the community have accused school system officials of canceling activities to strong-arm residents into passing a tax increase. Nekoloff says activities were canceled after other cuts failed to help solve the financial problems. "We've had $22 million in reductions and more than 330 positions reduced over the past three years," she says.

Residents will vote on a scaled-back property tax increase in November. The district estimates the new proposal would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $18.89 a month in property taxes. The median household income for the area was $54,965 in 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Pay-to-play plan considered

District officials are studying a pay-to-play model, which increasingly has been used across the country. Nekoloff says if South-Western's proposed tax increase passes, the board could bring back activities under this system and students would share costs with the district.

At most schools, pay-to-play fees cover a portion of a team's expenses and school districts kick in the rest. But those amounts can be disproportionate, as is the case at Brighton High School in Michigan.

Brighton offers 32 sports and fields 98 teams, enviable by any school's standards. But the district funds only 38% of the athletic department's nearly $1.5 million in expenditures; the other 62% is self-generated through fundraisers and fees, athletics director John Thompson says.

Athletes pay $175 a sport, although the fee for a third sport is waived. Students also pay transportation fees ranging from $30 to $70 a sport. Fees are waived for those with financial hardship.

"We've started chipping away at the model that existed when I was a kid," Thompson says.

"Unfortunately, one day sports will be out there for people who have money. We can say we'll take care of those without money, but I can tell you it will be the kids with talent. The average kid is going to get left behind. That whole development factor, they're going to miss out on it."

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